On September 1, 2004, Chechen terrorists took over School #1 in Beslan, Russia, capturing both the school grounds and the 1200 children and parents who had gathered there to celebrate the first day of school. What transpired over the next 54 hours for those hostages -- sandwiched together in a sweltering gymnasium without food or water -- and their helpless loved ones gathered outside was a tragedy so incomprehensible that any film that attempts to tell its story is practically guaranteed a degree of success. Such is the case with Three Days in September, a Showtime documentary that will air on the channel in May, after premiering at Tribeca.
Narrated by Julia Roberts, the film tells the story of the Beslan school siege through the eyes of those who were involved, including three adults who were hostages, a girl who spent the entire three days outside the school with her mother hoping her little sister would make it out alive, and Rulan Aushev, a former president of Ingushetia who was the only person allowed inside to negotiate with the terrorists. Their interviews are inter-cut with news footage of the crisis, limited video from inside the school (shot by the terrorists), and images of the ruined school as it looks today, and provide details as Roberts’ voice-over takes viewers the through the chronological events of the siege.
Made with the American cable audience in mind, the film takes the obvious path through the horrors of Beslan, emphasizing personal stories over big-picture coverage, and avoiding politics in favor of a simple story of loss with which it is impossible to not identify. While the avoidance of politics is understandable to a degree -- after all, what story of suffering isn’t more accessible when foreign politicians and their confusing relationships aren’t thrust into the middle of it? -- the fact remains that is impossible to understand what happened at Beslan without also understanding Russian relations with Chechnya, and how Russian policy changed with Vladimir Putin was elected. In those facts lie the roots of Chechen terrorism, the crucial background of which is also slighted in the film. Perhaps most unforgivably, in the cursory summary of the Chechen War and subsequent terror, the Moscow theater invasion in 2002 (a similar hostage crisis of almost identical length ensued) is discussed, as is the death of 120 hostages. What isn’t mentioned, however, is the fact that almost all of them died because of the gas that government forces pumped into the theater to incapacitate the terrorists. By glossing over that representative error, Three Days in September loses its chance to introduce the important issue of governmental incompetence and confusion, a factor whose contributed to the lack of resolution at Beslan is never discussed.
Because the political background of the siege is neglected, the filmmakers’ late attempt to introduce the public dissatisfaction with Putin’s handling of the crisis is weak and misleading; instead of facts, we get Roberts reciting the opinions of some of Beslan’s citizens, always carefully cushioned by phrases like “they believe,” or “it is said.” Without the necessary background, these comments are made to sound more like the desperate reactions of a broken people than the entirely reasonable protests of a citizenry that’s simply had enough of their government’s deception, lies, and incompetence in crisis.
In addition, when Aushev, the negotiator, looks at the camera at the film’s end and firmly tells the audience that “the problem of the Chechen Republic must be solved … politically,” the significance of his statement is lost without a political context. There must be some balance between making a film accessible and letting an audience in on crucial facts -- in this case, that Aushev’s public questioning of the war in Chechnya led to him being forced out of office in 2002, and to Kremlin rigging of the subsequent Ingushetia election. Were that information included in the film, the significance of his presence, both because it was a sign of how truly desperate the Kremlin was to find a solution in Beslan, and because the crisis he was called to handle was a symptom of something he had been fighting for years, would have been clear. As it is, this depth -- as well as the passion behind Aushev’s final statement to the camera -- will be completely lost on viewers without a solid, independent grasp of Russian politics.
When it airs on Showtime, Three Days in September will give a number of Americans their first look at what has been described as “Russia’s 9/11.” This is undoubtedly important, and the network should be applauded for its willingness to devote time and money to a crisis in such a small, faraway town. It’s disappointing, though, to realize how much deeper the look could have been, had the makers been willing to add 20 minutes to the film’s running time (it’s only 75 minutes long), and to brave a little bit of politics. A token glance is better than nothing, but why not teach the audience a little bit while you have them, rather than simply telling a tragic tale?